The Lives of Others was a surprise winner of the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2007 Academy Awards, when it edged out the popular and critical favourite ‘Pans Labyrinth’, though the award was with hindsight, completely merited. Von Donnersmarck’s debut feature is a refreshing antidote to the likes of ‘Goodbye Lenin! which promoted the myth of nostalgia for life in the former East Germany popularly known as Ostalgie. One can point out that ‘Goodbye Lenin’ was nothing more than a gentle comedy, deriving much humour from the kitsch value of fashions and foodstuffs of the era, but ‘The Lives of Others’ smashes those myths to pieces, meticulously constructing a recreation of what life was really like for the people of DDR. It was an age when the Stasi monitored all aspects of public behaviour, whilst reportedly employing up to 300,000 informants through a combination of threats and bribery. Von Donnersmarck nominally focuses on the surveillance of one individual, the renowned playwright, Georg Dreyman. Though not considered subversive, a Minister named Hempf orders the surveillance because of his infatuation with Dreyman’s leading actress and girlfriend, Christa-Maria. The task is entrusted to Wiesler, who we previously witnessed lecturing about interrogation methods. Wiesler reminds us of Harry Caul in Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’. Both are lonely single men whose surveillance work takes over their life, who begin to empathise with the subjects of their surveillance, and who ultimately try to intervene and obstruct the surveillance. The final scene of ‘The Conversation’ is more or less reprised in this film, where Dreyman tears his apartment up looking for bugging equipment.
Wiesler initially reports Dreyman’s activities as they genuinely are, finding nothing of use to the authorities, though his partner takes particular enjoyment in the nocturnal habits of the playwright and his girlfriend. It is a combination of his empathy for Dreyman and his revulsion towards his superiors that leads him to file false reports, filled with banal information, at a time in which Dreyman’s behaviour becomes more subversive. When he writes an article about the burial of suicide statistics in East Germany, later published in the West anonymously, Wiesler notes that he is in fact writing a play based on Lenin for the 40th anniversary of the DDR. High ranking politicians are shown to be career-minded, with upholding socialism not even a second thought. Grubitz, a former colleague of Wiesler insists he gets results so that he can impress Hempf, whose motives for trapping Dreyman are highly dubious. Grubitz turns the screw by arresting Christa-Maria and encouraging her to inform on Dreyman, who is suspected of writing the article on suicide rates, which has tragic consequences, as she can no longer live with her betrayal of Dreyman.
Wiesler intervenes to save Dreyman, removing the typewriter that the article was written on from his house. However, Grubitz realises this and demotes him to steaming open letters (where he works with a careless state official who earlier told a joke about Hoenecker), where he remains for the following three years until the Wall comes down. As has been the case since then, East German citizens have been keen to discover what information was kept on them by the Stasi. Dreyman, who assumes he was never bugged, finds out to his bemusement that he was bugged, and that there are literally dozens of thick files held on him. He then tries to seek out Wiesler, who arguably saved his life. In a poignant and amusing touch, Dreyman dedicates a novel to Wiesler, who buys a copy in a ‘Karl Marx’ bookstore (see what I meant about Ostalgie?). Wiesler is asked if he wants the book gift-wrapped, to which he replies ‘It’s for me’.
The Lives of Others is a staggering first feature; the best debut from any country in recent memory. Whilst one might assume it’s going to be a heavy going and humourless depiction of life under authoritarianism, that’s not the case, as von Donnersmarck carefully balances tragedy with humour. It’s fashionable today to look at various aspects of Communism with an element of fondness, but there was a terrible human cost, and whilst the DDR was hardly on a footing with Stalin’s Soviet Union, it was still an overwhelming climate of fear and suspicion. Reports suggest that a Hollywood remake is in the works, which would surely baffle anyone who has seen this marvellous film.